Stephen B. Luce Part II

Photo of the early Naval War College from the east passage of Narragansett Bay

When Luce first thought about a Naval War College, there were no books or studies on the theoretical character of a navy. One of his main objectives in establishing the college was to have its faculty create the philosophical and theoretical literature that related the basic elements of warfare to the naval profession. The essence of the body of literature could then guide practical application.

To create the fundamental underpinning of professional thought, Luce turned to the study of naval history as a key resource. He believed that from historical knowledge, officers could begin to generalize about the nature of navies and thereby provide the groundwork for professional thought. But, he warned, if this study were to be profitable, one had to be able to identify historical material that could be analyzed and reasoned upon with advantage. Here, Luce admonished officers to think broadly and to range freely over the centuries; he noted particularly that Thucydides and other ancient writers offered much valuable insight even for a technologically advanced culture.

To stimulate a profitable examination of naval history, Luce proposed that it be undertaken by individuals with an intimate knowledge of current practice as well as a wide-ranging theoretical understanding of the art of warfare. Simultaneously, Luce suggested using the conclusions drawn from army history in a comparative way, as a guide to formulating naval theory. The basic ideas in military studies were often directly applicable to the art of naval warfare, Luce believed; for these concepts to be assimilated properly, however, someone needed to reformulate and modify them after making a detailed, thorough investigation of a broad variety of naval actions. Luce gave this job to Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and suggested that Mahan use Jomini’s ideas as a basis in the work of creating naval theory through comparative study.

Luce believed that from a study of detailed cases in naval affairs, new naval generalizations could be established by logical thinking. First, generalizations would be established through inductive reasoning, that is, by proceeding from particulars to generalization; then the process could be reversed, through deductive reasoning, by applying the generalizations as a guide to particulars in the present and in the future.

Luce’s central and basic idea about the Naval War College was his belief that a naval officer did something more than just perform a job. He carried out his work as a highly educated, trained specialist operating within a clearly defined area with established procedures and ethical standards; further, the officer used a highly developed body of theoretical knowledge relating to his field, and had a strong feeling of group identity and shared knowledge with others performing similar work. In short, Luce saw the naval officer as a professional, who, like a doctor, lawyer, or educator, should have both advanced education and recognized credentials certifying his achievement in mastering the progressive levels of understanding needed for his chosen career.

The field of education was Luce’s focus. In every sense of the word, he was a teacher, and he devoted his entire career to the presentation of his concepts to the naval profession and to the nation. In his thinking he drew a sharp distinction between practical training for specific tasks and the education of the mind for creative functions. Representative of much that was popular among the educational circles of his day, Luce’s article “On the Study of Naval Warfare as a Science” best reveals the substance of his educational concepts. Like philosopher Herbert Spencer, Luce believed that education is an individual process whereby each person has to discover for himself the nature of the world around him. Largely for this reason, he established the methodology of the Naval War College around individual reading and research. Teachers were not to be sources of information, but, rather, guides in a cooperative search for knowledge. For Luce and many others, truth was something to be found in basic immutable laws of nature that were fully ascertainable by individuals.

At that time, the use of comparative study and analogy was popular in the arts, as it was among scientists. The scientists had demonstrated that there were basic laws of the physical universe, and it seemed logical to Luce that similar laws could be found in human nature. These were ideas that Luce brought together and applied in his own self-education and that he adapted to the Naval War College. They were not unusual ideas at this time, and they were not original with Luce; however, the depth of thought and the successful application of these ideas were unusual in a navy. Therein lies Luce’s contribution.

The Naval War College was conceived as only part of Luce’s larger scheme for the systematic development of the Navy, but during the latter portion of his lifetime, it became the aspect to which he devoted the majority of his attention. Even after its establishment, the development of the Naval War College along the lines that Luce had envisioned was not assured. The history of the Naval War College is the story of not only a battle for survival but also an effort to retain a conception of curricular study that emphasized the development of naval science and intellectual stimulation, rather than the mere training of officers in already preconceived ideas. In both these aspects, Luce led the effort and advised those who followed him.

After turning the presidency of the Naval War College over to Captain Mahan, Luce took command of the North Atlantic Squadron in 1886. Although markedly successful in this important command, Luce experienced some disappointment. The Naval War College comprised only the theoretical part of his plan, and it should have been supplemented by a permanent squadron of evolution, a sort of seagoing laboratory where the theoretical work of the college could be tested regularly. Luce tried to make the North Atlantic Squadron perform this function, but his hopes were not completely fulfilled for at least two reasons: the poor condition of the majority of ships, which made them unsuitable for such work; and the political situation in both Caribbean and Canadian waters, which kept the squadron scattered.

During Luce’s command of the North Atlantic Squadron, he was able to achieve his objectives on several occasions, however, and these marked the high points of his command. During the late nineteenth century, the squadron was used as a squadron of evolution, and it was then that ships of the U.S. Navy were first exercised tactically as a fleet. Luce had first attempted this exercise while temporarily serving as commander of the North Atlantic Station in August 1884, when the squadron had made a surprise landing on Gardiner’s Island in Long Island Sound. Given only two days of preparation, Luce issued orders for the landing while the squadron was at sea. He reported that such an exercise had never been previously attempted in secrecy. Luce’s second major exercise took place at Newport on 10 November 1887.

In undertaking these exercises, Luce was particularly interested in linking fleet operations with the academic work of the Naval War College. In this endeavor, Luce saw a direct interaction between the work of the college and the fleet exercises. Both exercises were joint operations involving landings; Luce believed that such exercises gave realistic training for actual combat while, at the same time, supplementing the comparative study of military and naval subjects that Luce had stressed at the Naval War College. He vainly hoped that these beginnings would develop into an American equivalent of the annual exercises that were then common in Europe.

Closely linked to a broad understanding of statesmanship, policy, strategy, and the broad function of navies in Luce’s mind was the need to investigate and to improve one’s understanding in those additional elements that comprise the highest aspect of professional thought: tactics and logistics. As strategy is interwoven in the great issues of state that guide it, so an understanding of strategy is essential to and intertwined with logistics and tactics. Luce emphasized that none of the elements can be entirely separated or omitted if officers are to be educated in their profession. The concept of comprehensive control of armed force blends these areas into focus, showing the various elements as gradients of a single concept that forms the essence of the best professional thinking in high command.

Both tactics and logistics are practical matters that involve the direct employment of equipment. Whatever its conception, any military operation is a blend of the two, tactics being the immediate employment of forces to attain strategic objects, logistics being the provision of the physical resources for tactics to employ. Although practical in nature and dependent on new technology, both tactics and logistics require a theoretical underpinning that provides a basic understanding on which action can be taken. Far from being an unnecessary abstraction for practical naval officers, Luce saw that an understanding of theory in these areas sheds light on problems and provides guidelines for responsible executives who must attempt to make optimal decisions in the face of chance, a variety of possible solutions, and limited resources.

Although theory was an important consideration to him, and ought to be carefully developed at the Naval War College, Luce believed that the link between theory and practice was a key element that deserved equal attention at the college. “War,” he wrote, “is no time for experimentation.” He commented: “That ‘war is the best school of war,’ is one of those dangerous and delusive sayings that contain just enough truth to secure currency: he who waits for war to learn his profession often acquires his knowledge at a frightful cost of human life.”

For this reason, Luce promoted naval war-gaming and encouraged the experimental use by the fleet of tactics and logistics concepts developed by the Naval War College. Peacetime, he believed, was the proper time to explore and to experiment with new methods and concepts in order to be prepared when war came.

Required to retire on his sixty-second birthday, 25 March 1889, Luce requested that for convenience the date be advanced by a month and a half. On 16 February, he ordered his flag struck on board his flagship, the USS Galena, at Key West, Florida, and he retired without ceremony to his home at Newport.

The next twenty-two years were spent in active retirement. During this period, Luce wrote more than sixty articles and maintained a close and active connection with the Naval War College. In 1892–1893, he served as commissioner general of the United States Commission for the Columbian Historical Exposition at Madrid, Spain. In 1901, Luce was ordered to active duty on the retired list at the Naval War College, and he remained in that status until he finally retired on 20 November 1910.

During these years, Luce devoted himself to a number of projects: promotion of the work of the Naval War College; prevention of the amalgamation of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy; improvement of the merchant marine; and, most important in his view, the installation of uniformed officers to direct the Navy from Washington. This last subject had been of long-standing interest to Luce, who took up the issue again in 1904 at the age of seventy-seven. In 1902 and 1903, the annual reports by the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral Henry C. Taylor, had pointed out that the bureau could not efficiently handle both the administration of naval personnel and the formulation of war plans. Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody and President Theodore Roosevelt concurred in Taylor’s opinion, and both urged Congress to create a naval general staff similar to what had been provided for the Army. In April 1904, hearings were held before the House Committee on Naval Affairs to consider a direct link between the General Board and the Secretary. There was a great deal of opposition to this proposal. The bureau chiefs feared encroachment on their own departments, and members of Congress feared a decline in civilian control of the military.

In the midst of this rising controversy, Luce took a radical position. He proposed not merely an adviser, but an entirely new office that would have the responsibility for fleet operations. In a letter to Henry Taylor on 25 June 1904, Luce wrote:

Up to the present time no Secretary has recognized the fact that naval operations should be included among his duties. Let this grave oversight be repaired at once by an Executive Order creating under the Bureau of Navigation the Office of “Naval Operations.” . . . The Office should be placed in charge of an officer of rank and one of recognized qualifications for its duties. His relations with the Secretary will be close and confidential. He will be the Secretary’s adviser on all questions of a military nature. . . . The duties of the office will be such as would have gone to the General Staff had one been created. Thus will the Secretary obtain, under the law, the substance of a General Staff without the empty shadow of the name. There is no such thing as spontaneous generation. Plant the seed now and let it grow.

The seed grew into the aid for operations and eventually the chief of naval operations. Its development, however, was slow, and at first even Taylor had his doubts. He promised to bring the suggestion to the attention of Secretary Moody before he left office, but Taylor did have reservations, as he was also trying to establish the General Board as a naval staff. “If we plant this other seed that you suggest,” Taylor wrote Luce, “I am afraid the two plants would not grow together well.”

Luce pressed forward; in March 1905 his article “The Department of the Navy” appeared after having been awarded an honorable mention in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Prize Essay contest. On its publication, he sent a copy of this latest plea for an improved naval organization to Admiral of the Navy George Dewey. “The time for action has come,” he wrote Dewey. “I have a plan of action which I would like to lay before the General Board.”

Appearing before the board on 31 March, Luce outlined his proposal in detail and urged the board to take immediate action in support of an executive order that would activate the plan without waiting for Congress. Legislative sanction, he believed, would follow as a matter of course, as it had for the Naval Academy, the Torpedo Station, the Naval War College, and the naval training services. The matter was considered, but no action was taken.

In November 1906, the annual report of Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte stated that radical reform of the Navy Department was necessary. However, he soon left the Navy to become the attorney general. In April 1907, during a visit to Washington, Luce gave the new Secretary, Victor Metcalf, copies of his articles on naval administration and several papers on naval efficiency, all with little apparent effect. When Luce returned to Washington three weeks later, he found that the Secretary intended to rely on Congress, which, he felt, would certainly take up the matter at the next session.

Luce was not to be put off. In early October he took advantage of a general order soliciting “suggestions to improve the efficiency of the Navy” to again propose that an office of “Naval Operations” be established that would supervise the military operations of the fleet. Again, no action was taken, as politicians and bureaucrats thwarted the reformers. The climate improved in December 1907, however, as the Navy reentered the public spotlight. The Great White Fleet started its well-known cruise around the world, and the hearts of the nation sailed with it.

With the U.S. Navy in the forefront, McClure’s Magazine published an article in January 1908 titled “The Needs of the Navy” by Henry Reuterdahl, the Swedish-American artist and American editor for Jane’s Fighting Ships. Written at the encouragement of Commander William S. Sims, the outspoken inspector of target practice and recently appointed naval aide to President Roosevelt, the article summarized many of Sims’s opinions on naval problems, particularly that the Navy’s bureaus were responsible for design defects in ships under construction and that they had failed to correct such defects as too low freeboard and misplaced armor when the flaws were brought to their attention by officers serving at sea. Repercussions were heard in all quarters. In February, the Senate reacted by ordering an investigation into the problems brought to light by Reuterdahl and Sims.

Luce quickly saw that much of the trouble to which these men pointed could have been avoided if the Navy had had more effective central direction. In the spring, Luce took up correspondence with Sims. Here was an opportunity to transmit his views to President Roosevelt through a sympathetic naval aide. The Senate committee was dominated by opponents of reform; when its investigation began to indicate the need for far-reaching administrative reform, it went into executive session and then abruptly ended its investigation without recommendations. Thus, it seemed essential to procure presidential action.

While the Senate committee was falling into inaction, Sims and his predecessor as naval aide, Commander Albert L. Key, brought to the President’s attention some serious design faults in the battleship North Dakota, then under construction. The President ordered the General Board, the Naval War College staff, and a group of junior officers with technical expertise to investigate the matter. This commission met in Newport in July 1908 and gave Luce and Sims the opportunity to talk at length about the basic problem of naval administration. In the midst of the conference, Luce wrote directly to the President and suggested the establishment of a commission to consider and to report on the reorganization of the Navy Department. Within two days President Roosevelt replied that he would carefully consider Luce’s “very interesting suggestion.”

In October 1908, Luce published his article “The Fleet” in the widely read North American Review. Interest in naval reform continued to grow. It appeared that by December a commission would be appointed to consider the matter. “Hope on hope Ever!” Luce wrote Sims, “We’ll get there some time.” They did. On 27 January 1909, President Roosevelt appointed a board headed by former Secretary Moody and including former Secretary Paul Morton, Congressman Alston G. Dayton, and retired Rear Admirals Luce, Mahan, Robley D. Evans, William M. Folger, and William S. Cowles. Through Luce’s urging, the board completed its work and submitted its recommendations to the President less than a week before he was to leave office. Roosevelt immediately forwarded the report to the Senate, but no action was taken.

When the administration of President William Howard Taft took office on 4 March 1909, the new Secretary of the Navy, George von Lengerke Meyer, immediately began to study the matter. Detailed plans were drawn up by a board headed by Rear Admiral William Swift, and in November 1909 Meyer ordered, without congressional authority, the establishment of a system of “aids” who would act as professional assistants to the Secretary and serve as an advisory council and general staff. The system was an improvement, although it did not represent the complete reformation that Luce and others had sought. From this beginning it would take more than five years for Congress to finally authorize a reorganization of the Navy Department and to provide for a chief of naval operations “charged with the operations of the fleet, and with the preparation and readiness of plans for its use in war.” Other individuals were responsible for bringing this idea to fruition. In early 1912, Luce became quite ill and ceased his work entirely. He died at his home in Newport on 28 July 1917, shortly after his ninetieth birthday.

First and foremost, Stephen B. Luce was a naval officer and seaman, but he was also a teacher, writer, organizer, administrator, and leader. During his career, he developed a perception of the Navy as a flexible tool for applying force. He believed that if a navy was to fulfill its function successfully, it must be efficiently controlled by leaders who not only were technically proficient but also understood the political limitations and implications of force. With this basic theme in mind, Luce worked for improvements in education and organization during a time of great technological innovation. He promoted standardized procedures throughout the service, established a basic training program for seamen, and initiated the Naval War College for educating officers who would establish naval policy, develop strategy, and manage the Navy’s functions. He was greatly influenced by ideas of the scientific study of history in the works of T. H. Buckle and J. K. Laughton and by the military theories of E. B. Hamley, Emory Upton, and Jomini, as well as by the expansionist ideas of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge.

Luce appreciated the technological revolution of his age, but he saw such innovation only as an additional reason to improve education and organization in order to use and to control technology properly. He was the acknowledged leader of naval intellectuals and influenced a number of rising officers, among them Bradley Allen Fiske, William Sowden Sims, Henry C. Taylor, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Luce was not an original theorist, but a subjective thinker, the leader of a reform faction that was strongly opposed by the technocrats within the Navy. In his own time, he served as a conduit for the new European military ideas, which became some of the fundamental impulses for the development of American naval education, organization, administration, and strategic theory in the twentieth century.


This essay is drawn from and summarizes John B. Hattendorf’s earlier work on Luce. More detail can be found in The Writings of Stephen B. Luce, edited by Rear Admiral John D. Hayes and John B. Hattendorf (Newport, R.I., 1975); John B. Hattendorf, B. Mitchell Simpson III, and John R. Wadleigh, Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, R.I., 1984), chaps. 1–4; John B. Hattendorf, “Luce’s Idea of the Naval War College,” Naval War College Review 37 (September–October 1984): 35–53; and the entry for “Luce” in Roger L. Spiller, Joseph G. Dawson, and T. Harry Williams, eds., Dictionary of American Military Biography, 3 vols. (Westport, Conn., 1984).

Luce’s midshipman cruise on board the USS Columbus is related in Charles Nordhoff, Man of War Life, edited by John B. Hattendorf in the Naval Institute Classics of Naval Literature series (Annapolis, Md., 1985), which includes Luce’s article, “A Fo’castle Court Martial.” In addition to the studies relating to other naval figures connected with Luce, see Albert Gleaves, Life and Letters of Stephen B. Luce (New York, 1925), which was written by a naval officer who knew Luce and his family well. Ronald Spector, Professors of War: The Naval War College and the Development of the Naval Profession (Newport, R.I., 1977), provides further detail on the early years of the Naval War College.